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California Grapevines Budding Out

Warm winter brings early bud break in most vineyards

by Jane Firstenfeld
Several grapegrowing regions in California's North Coast report that 2014 bud break has arrived two to three weeks earlier than normal. Photo: Sonoma County Winegrowers
San Rafael, Calif.—The warmest winter on record is officially over, and a potentially long, dry growing season has begun. How is the weird weather affecting California vineyards?

With the help of regional association directors, Wines & Vines took a virtual zigzag down the state this week, asking grapegrowers about bud break, frost threat and potential mitigation, and their outlook for the year ahead. Look for dispatches from other California locations later this week.

Although results vary in terms of date, virtually all growers are expecting a smaller crop than the past two vintages, and frost control and water supplies are on everyone’s minds.

Napa County
Allison Cellini at Renteria Vineyard Management said, “We have calculated that we are three weeks earlier than last year in Carneros Chardonnay bud break, and two to three weeks earlier in Cabernet throughout the valley.

“Water situations at most of our ranches are stable now with the exception of a few ranches that depended on drain tiles to pump water in the reservoirs. At these ranches…we are preparing to truck water in,” she reported. The company is checking its wind machines and overhead sprinklers, and (it) has already seen some close calls for frost temperatures in Calistoga and below-freezing temperatures in Pope Valley, albeit without the need for frost protection, Cellini said.

Amy Warnock at Orin Swift Cellars in St. Helena offered an optimistic viewpoint: “2013 was an early season, and so far bud break dates in 2014 have tracked 10-12 days even earlier than 2013.  A longer growing season gives the grapes more time to accumulate sugar, evolve acids, and soften tannins before the fall rainstorms. The rain we received at the beginning of this month came at the perfect time, giving vines a drink before pushing out of dormancy.

“With such early growth, we will all have to be on alert for frost conditions, as we still have over a month window where the frost risk is high. With more rains predicted for next week, 2014 has started with near-ideal conditions.”

Sonoma County

Sonoma County Winegrowers chairman Brad Petersen, who serves as vineyard manager at Silver Oak Cellars and Twomey Cellars, said: “We’ve got bud break in several vineyards. Cabernet Sauvignon in the northern Alexander Valley is out 0.25 to 1.5 inches; Sauvignon Blanc in Russian River is out 0.25 to 0.75 inches. Zinfandel in Alexander Valley is out 1-2 inches as well. It looks like we are about two weeks earlier than last year.”

Conditions during 2013’s bud development offer the potential for another good crop, he said.

“Our Cabernet Sauvignon in the southern part of Alexander Valley is being pruned late to try to delay bud break a week or so. The tips of the five to six bud shoots left from pre-pruning in January are just starting to push. These will be cut back to two bud spurs that will start to push in another week or so. This is in our coldest spot, requiring frost protection with overhead sprinklers several times per year. By pushing the bud break off another seven to 10 days, that will also delay the need to frost protect, saving us some water for later use either as frost protection or irrigation.”

“We are at 100% bud break in Sonoma Carneros, and Petaluma Gap is at 75%,” said Steve Sangiacomo of Sangiacomo Family Vineyards. “We started 10 days ahead of last year, and with this recent warm spell we are now two weeks ahead. Way too early to determine crop, however initial bunch counts look encouraging.

“Frost is very difficult to predict, but we are preparing, as March-April is a very susceptible time. We are mowing grass and using all practices to enhance our frost protection. Overall, the early start has been ideal, and the vineyards look phenomenal.”

Redwood Empire Vineyard Management (REVM) farms vineyards throughout Sonoma County. Owner Kevin Barr reported, “We had a frost event earlier this week on a number of different vineyards in Russian River and Dry Creek Valley. We do anticipate a few more events in the next coming weeks. Depending on the site, we use all forms of frost control—wind machines, a foliar spray of Frost Guard and overhead frost sprinklers where water is available. Because this is a drought year, we are exploring all of our options and utilizing whatever we can, as many of our sites don’t have the luxury of water or ponds to hold water to utilize for frost control. We are being very conscious of sites where we have overhead sprinklers, constantly checking temperatures and having them on only as long as absolutely needed.”

He agreed that bud break in most of Sonoma is about two weeks earlier than usual.

lake county bud break
Grapegrowers in Lake County are expecting normal to slightly smaller than average yields following two large harvests. Source: Lake County Winegrape Commission/Casey Carney
Lake County
Randy Krag of Beckstoffer Vineyards reported from the Red Hills district that he’d observed bud break during “the past couple of days” on Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec in early/warm locations. “Young Cabernet Sauvignon vines are swelling and will be out in a couple of days, with mature Cabernet Sauvignon anticipated to emerge in 10 days or so.” 

“This is about 14 days early compared to average” in the Red Hills, Krag said. He projects a normal crop for 2014, although the early bud break means a potentially longer frost season. Beckstoffer uses a combination of micro-sprinklers and wind machines to protect vines from frost damage: The latest average frost date there is around May 1.

And with the current drought, the company ordered more wind machines to reduce water use: “We were fortunate to have ordered last fall, before the drought became critical. Manufactures are back ordered, and new machines are hard to come by,” Krag noted.

From the High Valley, Clay Shannon of Shannon Ridge Vineyards & Winery observed bud break on the hilltops about a week ago. Bud break was approximately three weeks earlier than normal in the Clearlake Oaks area (but pruning was also early); “Other areas seem to be two weeks early,” Shannon reported.

He envisions “an OK-sized crop,” and said of frost: “The best strategy is to go to church and keep plants healthy.”

Monica Rosenthal of Rosenthal Vineyards reported bud break in the Middletown area starting the week of March 10, also two or three weeks earlier than in recent years. She anticipates a slightly smaller crop due to pruning choices prompted by the drought. For some Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, “fewer spur positions equals less grapes, resulting in reduced water requirements.”

Mendocino County
From Yorkville’s Weir Vineyards, William Weir reported: “Bud break has not occurred in Yorkville yet, but is very close. For those who pruned in January, it has probably already occurred. It is already later than usual.”

Weir said he does not expect frost damage, adding, “I have a fan and natural wind to frost protect, as I am at 1,000 feet (altitude) and open to the ocean.” It’s too early to surmise about crop size, “especially since the impact of the drought has yet to be determined.”

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